Yemen, Somalia, and Al Qaeda

The Christmas Day terrorist attempt by a Nigerian national who claims to have received training from Al Qaeda in Yemen has produced cries that the US must "do something about Yemen." But the more we "do" in Yemen, the stronger the chances that we will become more deeply embroiled in the affairs of Somalia. The possibility of US military intervention in Yemen and Somalia may excite some Americans, but a multi-front war in Yemen and the Horn of Africa is unlikely to defeat Al Qaeda or provide a measurable return (in increased safety) on US investments of blood and treasure.

The New York Times urges greater intervention in Yemen, editorializing that "the United States and its allies are going to have to devise a broader strategy that also addresses Yemen's desperate economic, political and social problems " because "the Christmas Day plot is a warning -- we hope in time -- of why it's so important to head off full chaos in Yemen. The last thing the world needs is another haven for Al Qaeda." That sounds like a nation-building agenda, especially when the Times groups Yemen with Afghanistan and Pakistan as a project that the "weary" American public must take on.

The US is, as the Times' editorial board acknowledges, already involved in Yemen. Counterterrorism support to Yemen has vastly expanded since 2006. CIA agents, top military officials, and millions in aid are now making their way into the country. In December, the US carried out missile strikes on Al Qaeda targets there. But as concerns about Al Qaeda draw the US more deeply into Yemen, the American military will, more and more, cross paths with Somalis - ordinary people, fighters, and hardline would-be terrorists.

Events in Yemen and Somalia are increasingly intertwined. In 2009, a record number of refugees fled from the Horn of Africa to Yemen, including many Somalis. These refugees contribute to social tensions and political turmoil. Even more alarmingly, Yemeni rebels have pressed Somali refugees into military service. The bottom line is, the more people the US military kills in Yemen, the greater the likelihood we will kill some Somalis there. That could have serious consequences. Whether through a chain of unanticipated events or through the conscious choice to treat the Gulf of Aden as a cohesive, "Afpak"-style front, stepping up our involvement in Yemen could lead to a greater military presence in the entire region. But the US cannot control politics in these two poor and unstable countries, and open intervention there could create more enemies than it eliminates.

That's not to say we should ignore Somalia. Any day now, Somali hardliners could perpetrate an act of terrorism outside Somalia's borders, near or far. Nigerian writers worry about a "September 11-like attack" on the continent of Africa. Al Shabab rebels have threatened to attack Uganda and Kenya. In November, a Somali man attempted to smuggle explosives onto an airplane bound for Djibouti and Dubai. And for months, American officials and journalists have worried that the "steady stream of young Somali-American men" recruited to fight in Somalia might, upon their return, conduct attacks inside the US.

In short, any serious discussion of Al Qaeda and/or international terrorism must include Somalia, but developing a more effective US counterterrorism policy does not require US military intervention in Somalia. Even those who call for such an intervention have not specified what it should look like or what its military objective would be, beyond "aggressively" countering terrorist groups. Yes, in many ways Somalia fragments further each day, setting the stage for solidified al Shabab control in southern Somalia. But foreigners just make the violence worse; a number of Somali civilians were killed in fighting this year, but those numbers pale in comparison to the figures of Somali dead from the period of Ethiopia's US-backed occupation of Somalia. Somalis may not be close to solving their problems, but if foreign powers try to force political outcomes there, the streets will again run red.

The potential costs and unpredictable consequences of increased US military involvement in Yemen suggest that a limited counterterrorism strategy is our wisest course there. The risk of a widening war that comes to include both Yemen and Somalia further strengthens the case against US military commitments in the Gulf of Aden. So before the US pours more CIA operatives, money, and military personnel into Yemen, we should ponder the high risks -- and low returns -- of aggressive intervention.